The Essence Hire: It's Personal and Professional

In response to the controversial news that Essence magazine has hired a white fashion director, a former fashion editor at the magazine explains why we care.

Harriette Cole

Reports that Essence magazine is hiring Ellianna Placas, a white woman, as fashion director have ignited a passionate response around the Web. Michaela angela Davis, a former fashion editor at the magazine, spoke out against the news on her Facebook page: "It's with a heavy heart I've learned that Essence magazine has engaged a white fashion director. ... It's a dark day for me." The magazine's editor-in-chief, Angela Burt-Murray, has responded to the backlash.

Here, former Essence fashion editor Harriette Cole writes about how, even before she achieved the position, her ability to aspire to it had a profound influence on her career -- and those of other black strivers in the fashion industry.

I remember when I first knew I wanted to be part of the world of fashion. I was a 12-year-old gangly girl in Baltimore. I knew I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be a model. Back then I was writing poetry and short stories and hiding them away in my closet. By age 14, I was strutting my stuff on runways at church, at school and in small local productions.

When I went to Howard University, I studied English and walked the runways at every major fashion event at school and in the District. I wrote fashion features for The Hilltop, my college newspaper. Upon graduation, I was invited to go to Europe to be a runway model. But I wanted to write more. Early on, I realized that the only subject I knew enough about to get people to pay me to write about was fashion.

I decided I would move to the Big Apple and become a fashion editor. To prepare, I created two internships at free D.C. newspapers, where I wrote fashion articles for one year with the intention of using those clips to get myself a job. I followed my mother's advice, remembering the people who had been kind to me and reaching out to all of them who worked at magazines in New York City to see if I could land an interview. I secured two. I was offered both jobs, though neither of them was in fashion. I accepted the position at Essence, as an assistant editor in the lifestyle department. I was excited even as I was disappointed. I felt I deserved a fashion job.

And so I incorporated fashion into my role. Everything I had learned up to that point about photo production, about hair and makeup and wardrobe, I brought to the table. We used to travel annually to different parts of the world, documenting the cultures of people of African descent. I remember one year I asked Iman if she would prepare a care package for me of makeup that I could use when we traveled to Zimbabwe to tell the stories of the dynamic leaders there at their 10th anniversary of emancipation. I planned to style the women -- from their own closets -- and do light hair and makeup. It was wonderful to honor these beautiful women by drawing upon all of my creative resources.

I loved my job, which by then was running that department. And then the unlikely happened. The venerable Ionia Dunn-Lee, who had occupied the fashion editor's seat at Essence for 17 years, left. And Susan Taylor, the editor-in-chief, invited me to fill the position. I pinched myself: "Really?!" After seven years, I was to step into a position that I had barely dared envision for myself.

During the five years that I ran the fashion department, not only was I able to celebrate black women's style, but I was also able to hire many other black women (and men) -- though not everyone I hired was black -- to help me produce those pages. I hired Michaela angela Davis, who brought her rock-and-roll sensibility to the table. I gave the late celebrity makeup artist Roxanna Floyd her first job at the magazine. (She went on to do makeup for more than 60 Essence covers.) I hired African-American fashion stylists, makeup artists, hairstylists and designers and have heard time and again that had it not been for Essence, they might not be where they are today.